While in the village the other day, checking out Georgica Beach with the dogs, we came across a little deer. The deer’s ears had both been tagged and she had a wide stiff plastic collar around her neck. My heart sank at the sight and I began to feel sorry, not only for the deer, but for our own society. How far is too far?I’m trying to wrap my head around the fact that instead of an experienced hunter killing the deer quickly and many people eating the venison (without the added hormones and antibiotics that most of our meats contain) we shoot the deer to knock it out, drag it into a van, cut it open, rip out its reproductive organs and then send it back into “the wilds” of East Hampton Village with cumbersome plastic tags punched into its ears and a collar so wide it must cut into her neck. How is that better?
Instead of trying to play God, perhaps we should embrace our own predator instincts and go back to the ancient and universal tradition of hunting when it comes to the overpopulation of deer.
We all want deer in the forest. Aside from their obvious grace and beauty, they are a smart, fecund, prolific prey species with no toothy predators such as wolves or cougars, which were wiped out due to humans trying to control the wilderness by eradicating the species.
Nature needs to be in balance, not wiped out.
Deer numbers, especially in the eastern United States, have grown so much that they’ve wiped out our forests. This is a huge reason why we don’t see as many birds or insects, or flowers in the woods anymore and invasive species have taken over native plants and trees.
For those of us who would rather do nothing and allow the deer to continue to mate without any predators, we might want to listen to Thomas Rawinski talk about the effects of deer browsing on native vegetation, as he did at Long Island Nature Organization’s conference last month.
Mr. Rawinski, a botanist and conservationist, who grew up in central Massachusetts, studied at Cornell University and worked for the Nature Conservancy and the Audubon Society before taking a job with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service. He is passionate about keeping our forests alive in the northeastern United States, where they are in crisis.
“I have empathy for these forest ecosystems that are just being devastated and the biodiversity that is going down the tubes because of it,” he said in a preface to one of his talks. “Empathy for the people who are afflicted by the consequences of too many deer, family members with tick borne diseases, people who hit a deer with their cars and are traumatized or injured. Empathy for woodlot owners and tree farmers who cannot grow their own trees. Empathy for hunters who want to keep enough deer in the woods to be interested, and empathy for the animal rights advocates who see these as beautiful animals.”
All of the above are unintended consequences of “gentrified nature,” but Mr. Rawinski is talking about an issue that no one else seems to be talking about. Too many deer are wiping out our forests.
Mr. Rawinski calls the loss of forest ecosystems “the greatest conservation challenge of our time, more urgent than climate change,” which gets all the attention and money.
He calls our denial about the topic, “willful blindness.” The root of human nature is to avoid controversial issues. “Conservation groups you think would be on the forefront are afraid of the deer issue,” he said.
As we stick our heads in the sand, the sassafras, balsam fir, white pines, ginseng, sugar maple, white trillium, sycamore, ash, pitch pine, and so many more important trees are being eaten alive.
Deer browsing is the “nail in the coffin” of the great American chestnut tree, which does not easily propagate.
“Eastern hemlock can’t rebound from browse pressure. It doesn’t sprout from base like most hardwood do when top-killed and they are vulnerable in winter,” he said, “This sucker is green when the deer are hungry.”
Deer will eat anything short of rocks, when they are overpopulated. In the understory of the forest, hay scented ferns are taking over flowers such as orchids. Normally, deer wouldn’t go near the ferns but when they do, you know there’s a problem.
So where does all this leave the black and white warbler, wood thrush, eastern towhee, ruffed grouse, just to name a few birds that have also gone by the wayside.
Many of us remember when there used to be more flowers in the woods yet you hardly see any flowers now. Beneficial insects like honeybees thrive on their nectar, the basis of life.
Forests purify our water supply and filter the air. It comes down to society-wide discussion where we must make some hard decisions and ask ourselves: Where’s the right balance?
Mr. Rawinski points to Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring,” as one of his influences.
“I’m going to write a book someday,” he said, “And title it ‘Scentless Spring.’”
He lives by Aldo Leopold’s land ethic spelled out in his book “A Sand County Almanac,” which mimics the Hippocratic oath of first doing no harm and when sick, doing what’s necessary.
When a keystone species so radically alters and degrades the landscape, we must act. We all have a moral responsibility to serve and protect wildlife.
“When does it sink in that the forest is no longer there? How many trees does it take for someone to say, ‘that’s not a forest anymore.’”
Plants have lost a functional role in the ecosystem, if they are still there.
“Something has to be done,” said Mr. Rawinski. And his answer is, “Rewilding Homo sapiens.”
Once shunned, hunters are being welcomed back. In many instances, recreational hunting is not cutting it, because hunters are taking the big bucks over the females and little ones. “Socially responsible hunters must leave the bucks alone and take the females or smaller deer or the sharp shooters are going to take over,” Mr. Rawinski said.
The American beech trees in Mashomack Preserve on Shelter Island saw an increase growth of 8 to 9 inches in just one season after a deer herd reduction in 2013, which he cites as a rare success story.
Even without their fashionable accessories, Long Island deer are “pathetic and sad animals,” due to their density. Their thick hair hides the fact that the animals are emaciated.
On the way home from Georgica beach, we drove past a patch of forest on Old Stone Highway where many trees had fallen down but no trees seemed to be growing in their place. I didn’t connect the two incidents at the time, but now I do.